From The Pentamerone to the Red Fairy Book

First edition of the Red Fairy Book (1890).

The Red Fairy Book contains quite a few lesser-known French, German, Russian, and Romanian tales, in addition to tales by Mme d’Aulnoy and, oddly, an adaptation of the Sigurd legend (evidently Lang thought Norse mythology sufficiently “savage” for the collection). The tale I thought would be fun to look at is a familiar favourite–“Rapunzel”. Lang’s version (not that he translated it) seems to be a close translation of “Rapunzel” from the final edition (1857) of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by the Brothers Grimm, but the tale is part of a longer literary tradition which ultimately stems from the 17th-century Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) by Giambattista Basile [1].

Front Cover of The Pentamerone, translated by John Edward Taylor (1848).

Better known as The Pentamerone, after the fashion of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it is a collection of fifty fairy tales delivered by ten female storytellers in a frame story over the course of five days. The anthology is the literary terminus a quo, that is, the earliest known written versions, of other well-known fairy tales as well, such as “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Hansel and Gretel.” Basile’s “Rapunzel” is called “Petrosinella” (“parsley”). In this story, Petrosinella’s pregnant mother is seized by an apparently fatal craving for–of all things!–parsley, specifically the parsley in her neighbour’s garden, which you’d think might subdue her appetite, since her neighbour is an ogress. (NB: Rapunzel is not of royal birth; dispel any contamination from exposure to any recent Disney productions.) But, not to be put off by this minor detail, she goes into the garden and steals herself some parsley. Eventually she is caught and made to promise the ogress her child when it is born, whom the mother christens Petrosinella, “because she had a pretty birthmark on her breast, the shape of a tuft of parsley” [2]. At age seven, the girl is whisked away by the ogress to the proverbial tower in presumably austere but otherwise undescribed conditions.

The Pentamerone, gilt pictorial spine.

This motif of gravid woman hankering after someone else’s luscious vegetables (an oxymoron, in my opinion) is a recurring motif present in all the Rapunzel stories (at least those that I know) and rooted in popular belief: “In many peasant societies, people believed that it was necessary to fulfill the longing of a pregnant woman; otherwise, something evil like a miscarriage or bad luck might occur. Therefore, it was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to filfull the cravings” [3].

Frontispiece and title page.

Basile’s text makes it explicit that the prince and Petrosinella have (premarital!) sex. The ogress is enlightened as to their affair by a gossipmonger, but the couple run away (Petrosinella descends by a rope ladder). The remarkably athletic ogress gives chase, is thwarted by three magical gallnuts in Petrosinella’s possession, and she is finally devoured by a wolf. The prince then takes Petrosinella back to his kingdom and marries her.

Petrosinella plate by John Cruikshank (1848).

Some like to trace the Rapunzel tale, a “Maiden-in-the-Tower” type tale (Arne-Thompson type 310), to the story of Saint Barbara from the 3rd century who is said to have been confined in a tower by her jealous father. If you want to go that way, we could go back even farther in time and cite Danaë. I wouldn’t, however, because to me the Rapunzel tale is not just about any maiden in a tower; it is about the girl who got locked up in the tower because her mother traded her in for unlimited salads (if only this were a real craving among people today) and who has insanely long hair.

The tale subsequently crops up in the literary tradition in Mlle de la Force’s Les contes des contes (1698). (Alas, this book is devilishly hard to find, even in translation.) According to Jack Zipes, “It is apparent that Mlle de la Force was acquainted with [Basile’s] tale, and there is a very important retelling of this story embedded in Mme d’Aulnoy’s ‘The White Cat’ (1697)” [4], the plot of which seems to have influenced de la Force’s adaptation, entitled “Persinette” (also a diminutive of “parsley”). One of the chief differences is that the ogress is swapped for a fairy, who actually lavishes Persinette in opulence and gracious living; Persinette has everything she could need or want, except for human society.

What tips the fairy off here is not a third party but Persinette’s swollen state, which she, being totally benighted, doesn’t understand. And, just like a man, the prince decides it’s best to keep it that way, though at least this prince seems to have the modesty to marry her before he gets to know her in the biblical sense:
“Now the prince was happy, and Persinette grew accustomed to loving him. They saw each other every day, and in a short time she became pregnant. Since she had no idea what this condition meant, she was upset. Although the prince knew, he did not want to explain it to her for fear of tormenting her. But the fairy had come to see her, and no sooner did she look at her than she recognized the malady.” [5]

Persinette is forced to tell everything, whereafter the fairy conducts her to a seaside spot “that was very isolated but pleasant enough” [6]. When the prince returns to the tower for Persinette, the vengeful fairy lets him climb up Persinette’s hair, which she has cut off, and then, “invoking her power, she [cases] the prince to throw himself from the top of the tower” [7]. (One wonders why a fairy, with all her power, would bother with the business of clambering up a tower by means of anybody’s hair.) The prince survives this fall (de la Force does concede that “his body should have broken into a thousand pieces” [8]), losing only his sight, and wanders blindly for a few years till by chance he stumbles across his wife and their twins, now toddlers. Her tears magically restore his vision and they share a touching family reunion only to despair later the same day of starving to death because, thanks to the fairy, all the food they touch turns into inedible stones, crystals, snakes, etc. Luckily, the fairy is finally moved, and, “recalling at this moment all the tenderness that she had once felt for the amiable Persinette” [9], relents and ferries the family back to the prince’s kingdom.

De la Force’s version expands on Basile’s (it is almost twice as long), giving justifications or rationales for the characters’ dubious behaviour. For instance, Persinette’s mother does not raid her neighbour’s garden. No, she withholds her wish and simply wastes away beyond recognition (“her husband could barely recognize her with his own eyes” [10]) until her husband makes her confess her consuming desire for parsley. It is the husband who, in the name of love, plunders for parsley. To mitigate the absuridity of her craving, the narrator says,
“At the time of this story, parsley was very rare in this country, and the fairy had it brought from the Indies. Indeed, one could not find any parsley in that country except in her garden…To be sure, the parsley must have been extremely delicious at that time.” [11]

Whereas Petrosinella seems to fall immediately in love with the prince, Persinette is initially baffled by the amorous youth and accepts his marriage proposal “without hardly knowing what she was doing” [12], growing “accustomed to loving him” only afterwards.

A German version of “Persinette,” a virtual translation, by Friedrich Schulz is thought to have been an underlying influence of the Grimms’ version [13]. Schulz’s retelling is called “Rapunzel” (1790). Indeed, “rapunzel” is yet another vegetable delicacy–not parsley, but rampion–which generates some rather humorous results in translation if one is not so familiar with the etymology:
“Now the young woman developed a huge craving to eat some rapunzel…she confessed that she had a strong desire to eat rapunzel salad…The rapunzel tasted so delicious that the next day her craving for it was three times as great as it was before.” [14]

Schulz made other minor changes, too. Unlike his predecessors, Schulz furnishes Rapunzel with a hook around which to fasten her hair when it is to be climbed. He even injects an instance of social commentary:
“…finally [the prince] was so bold as to propose marriage to her, and he wanted to have her right away. She said yes, without knowing why it was happening and without knowing how, and she did not really want to know where. What good behavior!” [15]
I sincerely hope that concluding exclamation was ironic.

Beautiful Rapunzel illustration by H.J. Ford from the Red Fairy Book.

Rapunzel’s pregnancy is only obliquely referred to when she complains “that all her clothes [have] become too tight for her” [16]. This detail is preserved in the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812), which, despite its title, was not originally intended for a children; all evidence of their intercourse, however, was removed as their juvenile audience grew and so the seventh and final edition of the collection does not even hint at Rapunzel’s pregnancy [17]. Accordingly, it is not Rapunzel’s sudden need for maternity wear that betrays her; instead, Rapunzel is made out to be an abject simpleton who gives her secret away with a careless remark: “‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are much heavier than the prince? When I pull him up, he’s here in a second” [18]. Notwithstanding, the twins are snuck in by the narrator at the end. Mr. Lang, on the other hand, or perhaps whichever woman translator had charge of this tale, excises even the children, and I daresay that it is this version of the story, so utterly bowdlerized, that is most widely-known. The Grimms’ version also turns the antagonist, still a fairy in Schulz, into a sorceress, a witch in the Red Fairy Book, who is considerably less benevolent than her fairy antecedents though not evil.

The Brothers Grimm were aware of and acknowledged their use of Basile’s The Pentamerone, though to what extent they relied on “Petrosinella” in setting down their version of “Rapunzel” is not clear.

There are other stories written in the Rapunzel tradition between Basile and the Brothers Grimm, and of course after them. I have only mentioned those relevant to the literary transmission of the tale from Basile to Lang. Translations of the tales I have quoted can be found in Jack Zipes’ The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. Other Rapunzel and type 310 tales can be found in Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Tales From Around the World, edited by Heidi Anne Heiner. (Unfortunately the latter cannot currently be found in the UofT or public library catalogues.)

All photos courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. p. 474: Zipes, Jack. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
2. p. 475, Ibid.
3. p. 474, Ibid.
4. p. 474, Ibid.
5. p.481-482, Ibid.
6. p. 482, Ibid.
7. p. 482, Ibid.
8. p. 482, Ibid.
9. p. 484, Ibid.
10. p. 479, Ibid.
11. p. 479, Ibid.
12. p. 481, Ibid.
13. p. 474, Ibid.
14. p. 484-5, Ibid.
15. p. 487, Ibid.
16. p. 487, Ibid.
17. A comparison of the first and final versions of the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” can be found online (in English, of course).
18. p. 491, Zipes.



Filed under Mufei Jiang

3 responses to “From The Pentamerone to the Red Fairy Book

  1. Jenny Tran

    I cannot look at children stories/fairy tales the same! This is so intriguing. I want to read the “originals” now. Great job, Mufei!

  2. patricia bruckmann

    love your blog and hope it will go on and on and on.

  3. Marlene Dittrich-Lux

    just great i am on research also for other “Grimms Storys” who has been european and never german or french or so on THX so much and i love the old illustrations so greetings from berlin xberg, germany marlene dittrich-lux

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